"He was the forerunner."
"That's what you said in the storm. I've thought since: Perhaps I am only a forerunner, too."
Perhaps, I thought, while her words still hung in the air between us like a wisp of tobacco smoke--a thought to fade and diminish like smoke without a trace--perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness that sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.
In 1944 a British military officer and his troop are moved to new quarters in the English countryside, quarters that he remembers from another lifetime ago, a manor house called Brideshead. Once, during the summer between semesters at Oxford, he visited Brideshead when it was the home of his closest friend.
The officer is Charles Ryder and the friend is Sebastian Flyte, and my very vague conception of Brideshead Revisited was that it was about their friendship. It certainly starts out that way: Ryder and Flyte meet at Oxford and become instant chums, Ryder playing a sort of straight-man to Flyte's urbane, playful dandy. It is even suggested--though this is a somewhat controversial reading--that they become lovers. But Sebastian disappears from the narrative fairly quickly, oppressed by his Catholic upbringing, descending into alcoholism, absconded into the North African desert. His very name suggests not only that he is "flighty," in the sense of caprice or frivolity, but that, as James Wood notes, he flees and then falls--like Icarus.
Brideshead gives the unique sense that things are always changing, as in life they tend to do. It struck me as giving the uncomfortable feeling of reading a sequel to a favorite book, in which things are not quite as you are accustomed to them being, only in cycles, on repeat. Ryder's connection to Brideshead is continued in his friend's absence through his love for Sebastian's sister, Julia. But as many times as he visits it, and though he very nearly inherits it through marriage to Julia, it never seems as a home to Ryder. In fact, it never really seems a home to anyone. The frame narrative leads us to expect a nostalgic reverie, but it does not prepare us for the way in which Brideshead, almost immediately, belongs to a long vision of the past.
What Brideshead is really about is Ryder's conversion to Catholicism. Throughout the novel, Ryder is as antagonistic to religion as he could possibly be, and with good reason: It is part of what causes Sebastian so much suffering, and ultimately it drives a wedge between him and Julia. But there is Godliness in Sebastian's suffering, as Julia's sister Cordelia tells Ryder:
I thought of the joyful youth with the Teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. "It's not what what one would have foretold," I said. "I suppose he doesn't suffer?"
"Oh yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be as maimed as he is--no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering..."
Ryder's true conversion happens off-stage, between his leaving Brideshead and Julia and his return there with the army, but we are made to understand that the seeds of it lay in his friendship with Sebastian, his love for Julia, his experience watching a priest try to coax an acknowledgment of the last rites from Julia's apostate father. Waugh buries his theme in a tossed-off reference to Chesterton's Father Brown series, in which Father Brown says, apprehending a criminal, "I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread"--so Ryder turns to God.
So it happens that, when Ryder returns to Brideshead, he ends with a visit to the ugly little art-nouveau chapel, which had barely seemed part of the house before:
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame--a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it his morning, burning new among the old stones.
How much you like Brideshead is probably directly affected by your religious sentiment; certainly a great many of his contemporaries abhorred it for its conservatism. There is something of it that makes me deeply uncomfortable, as well: Waugh is too eager to conflate Catholicism with the dying manor house, which itself is a symbol of English gentility. It reminded me of The Good Soldier, but what Ford speaks about half-satirically, Waugh (ironically, the greater satirist) holds in great sincerity. It is a self-annihilating sort of religion that turns Christ into an antique, or a fossil. But in spite of that, Brideshead is a novel that deserves its acclaim; besides being genuinely moving it is deeply funny.